With $50M, a former seminary is being converted into a world-class golf resort in this surprising rustbelt location

DETROIT — Expansive gardens, Romanesque architecture and the old-world chapel at Saint John’s Resort in Plymouth Township have attracted visitors for years. But Kevin Doyle promises the newly transformed property will be a unique combination of modern luxury, history and natural beauty as it undergoes a $50 million renovation to lure bigger conventions, weddings and charitable events.

Construction on the 200-acre former seminary is scheduled for completion in spring 2024.

“We are investing in this historic property with the aim to protect its authentic history, while taking it to a new level as a destination resort that’s rooted in a philanthropic mission,” said Doyle, chief operating officer for the nonprofit Pulte Family Charitable Foundation.

The William J. Pulte Estate purchased the site in July 2021 and transferred it to the foundation, which began renovating immediately. The initial budget was $40 million, but construction costs have increased, Doyle said.

“The authentic heritage and tradition of Saint John’s, and its ability to serve a higher purpose, has inspired us,” Doyle said.

The Pulte foundation was created by William “Bill” Pulte, a Michigan boy who built his first house at age 18 and went on to create Pulte Homes, according to his obituary in 2018. He was a quiet philanthropist who created the Angel Fund, an organization that provided shelter, heat and light for those in need in Detroit, family members have noted proudly over the years.

Pulte had a close relationship with the Archdiocese of Detroit, and when it decided to sell the Plymouth Township property, the church sold it to the family, Doyle said.

The foundation dedicates 100% of the net profits from Saint John’s to help fund programs for those in need. The Pulte foundation offers grants for foster programs, mental health, shelters for battered women and services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Bridge Housing Center at the Pope Francis Center in Detroit is one of many charities to receive funding, according to the Pope Francis Center’s 2020 annual report.

The Pulte foundation donated $6.6 million in grants in 2022 and $143 million to date, according to its annual report.

But make no mistake, Saint John’s is a business venture that involves ambitious plans that began with changing the name from the Inn at St. John’s to Saint John’s Resort. In 2006, the site evolved from what was designed for Catholic priest seminary training and a retreat center to include a restaurant and hotel. The conference center and golf course had been built years earlier.

“This property has a long mission-oriented history that aligns really well with our foundation and its values,” Doyle said. “Bill Pulte was a close friend and confidante of Cardinal (Adam) Maida, and Saint John’s was near and dear to his heart. He worked with the cardinal to transform the property into a conference center, a 118-room hotel, Five steakhouses (formerly 5ive), a 27-hole golf course and driving range.”

So, when the archdiocese decided to sell the property, the family foundation saw the acquisition as an opportunity to fund and continue the Pulte legacy while at the same time using the profits to reinvest in metro Detroit. Doyle declined to disclose the purchase price.

“We’re right outside Detroit but you feel isolated, like you’re transported to another world,” Doyle said about the campus located at Five Mile and Sheldon in Plymouth Township.

A rendering of the planned Monarch courtyard. The 200-foot glass wall will open to a courtyard with casual seating and fire pits. (Photo provided by the Saint John’s Resort)

In 2022, the site hosted 260 weddings and 520 meetings ranging in size from 20 to 700 attendees each, Doyle said.

The cost of staying a night at the resort now ranges from $200 to $1,600 a night with the presidential suite being a two-level, 1,600-square-foot suite with a kitchen, wet bar and dining room that seats up to eight people.

It has an indoor pool with a resistance swim area for freestyle swimming, plus a high-temperature jacuzzi and a low-temperature bubble lounger.

Saint John’s is 26 miles west of downtown Detroit, 21 miles north of Detroit Metro Airport and 19 miles east of Ann Arbor, according to Google Maps.

While some work has been completed, other projects are ongoing.

This is what’s being added:

  • The old golf course has been renovated into an elite 18-hole golf course called The Cardinal at Saint John’s.

  • A par 3 course modeled after famous greens from the United Kingdom and Ireland for relaxed, shorter golf games.

  • A 2-acre natural bent grass putting course, modeled after the Himalayas course at St. Andrews in Scotland.

  • Wedding and reception venues called the Garden Pavilion and the Monarch Ballroom to accommodate bigger parties and non-Catholic ceremonies. The 17,000-square-foot Monarch ballroom with glass skylights and a 200-foot glass wall will open to a courtyard with casual seating and fire pits. It can accommodate up to a 700-person reception or up to 1,500 seated event attendees for activities including a concert, conference or speech. The 6,200-square-foot glass-walled pavilion, called the Garden Pavilion, is scheduled to open in June.

  • A day spa.

  • A pub where the pro golf shop once sat.

  • A wine bar in the basement grotto of the conference center, opening this spring or summer.

  • Renovated bathrooms throughout the 118-room hotel that create a brighter and more modern space.

The Saints Mary and Joseph Chapel remains a Catholic chapel that the Pulte foundation leases to the Archdiocese of Detroit. Catholic marriage ceremonies conducted in compliance with church law may be celebrated in the chapel.

A rendering of the 17,000-square-foot Monarch ballroom with glass skylights and a 200-foot glass wall that will open to a courtyard with casual seating and fire pits. It can accommodate up to a 700-person reception or up to 1,500 seated attendees for activities including a concert, conference or speech. (Photo provided by the Saint John’s Resort)

Until now, golfers had to devote a whole day to the sport. Par 3 and putting courses create options for families and golfers who are looking for a shorter golf day and/or a more casual and fun experience, Doyle said.

During the summer, the site has hosted four wedding receptions every Saturday and could do a fifth wedding reception if space existed. Saint John’s is booked for weddings this year for existing spaces and many dates in 2024 already, Doyle said.

The golf courses are scheduled to open in spring 2024; this year will be spent growing in 140 acres of grass.

The two, three-story seminary buildings that date to the 1940s and overlook the golf course will be restored and expanded to frame the Monarch Ballroom and support larger events with a big kitchen, additional breakout meeting rooms and bridal suites for wedding preparation. One floor in a seminary building will be turned into efficiency apartments to provide 10 units for employees next year, Doyle said.

Who visits

A lot of visitors come from Chicago, as well as Germany and Japan, Doyle said. Corporate events, trade shows, manufacturers meetings and charity fundraisers dominate the calendar. In January, Saint John’s hosted an event for the Kevin’s Song Foundation benefiting suicide prevention awareness.

Hotel lobby at the Saint John’s Resort in Plymouth on Jan. 28, 2023.
Reviews on TripAdvisor since Pulte bought the site are left by people from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire, Mississippi and California. People from every corner of Michigan left guest reviews, too.

One five-star review from the Netherlands came from Alyeska13, who attended a wedding at Saint John’s in September 2022. She wrote, “A perfect gathering place for all of us.”

Bridal dreams

Lyndsay Heck, 29, a hairdresser who owns a salon in downtown Plymouth, married Nick Perez, 28, an airplane mechanic at Detroit Metro Airport, in the chapel at Saint John’s Resort in January. They liked that Saint John’s was a “one-stop-shop” with a hotel for guests, wedding venue and reception.

“Once you get there, you don’t have to leave,” Heck said, which made everything easier.

Their reception was in the original atrium, which is scheduled for refurbishment in coming months. It’s hard to schedule updates because the room is so popular, Doyle said.

“Everything was almost too good to be true,” Heck told the Free Press.

Elyse Haboush, 26, of Troy, decided to have her wedding at Saint John’s in April.

“I’d like to say picking a wedding venue is like visiting college campuses. When you find the one, you know,” she told the Free Press. “I actually was proposed to at Saint John’s. We were supposed to go to dinner with his parents at Five steakhouse on Dec. 1, 2021. Both our families were there.”

Haboush works in finance, her fiancé, Thomas Orlich, 27, of Livonia, works in purchasing. They felt warmth from the staff, who suggested laying out rose petals and tea lights, she said. “They were all onboard, so excited and just really sweet.”

A rendering of the 6,200-square-foot glass-walled pavilion, called the Garden Pavilion, is scheduled to open in June. (Photo provided by the Saint John’s Resort)

A little like Bloomfield Hills and Oakland Hills

Sometimes making things better means acknowledging reality. This is true at Saint John’s, too.

“The golf course wasn’t very good. It was like an average public golf course,” Rich LaBar, a golf course contractor hired from Bernardsville, New Jersey, to build the course, told the Free Press while discussing his upcoming changes.

LaBar’s other work has included renovations at Muirfield Village Golf Club, the site of the PGA Tour’s Memorial, and Rochester’s Oak Hill, the site of this year’s PGA Championship.

He told the Free Press he worked at Oakland Hills and Bloomfield Hills country clubs, also through Pulte family connections. And the vision presented for Saint John’s was, frankly, “pretty exciting,” LaBar said.

As an altar boy until freshman year of high school who went on to marry a Catholic Midwesterner, LaBar said the project just felt right. His wife, Bridget Farley LaBar, is a cousin to Ford CEO Jim Farley. LaBar talks of visiting family in Grosse Pointe, Grand Rapids and Muskegon.

“I’m drawn to working in Michigan,” he said.

LaBar is working with golf course designer Ray Hearn, whose company is based in Holland, Michigan.

Every step approved

Kurt Heise, born and raised in Dearborn, moved to the Plymouth area 17 years ago and has attended weddings, banquets and fundraisers at Saint John’s over the years. Now he’s seeing reinvestment, including the purchase of a van by the Pulte foundation for the local senior transportation program in Plymouth Township.

This is a big project for the community and they’ve been very meticulous and supportive, Doyle said.

This rendering of the Monarch Courtyard at Saint John’s Resort is one of many improvements made possible by a $50 million investment.
There may be a lot of changes at Saint John’s, but Heise, a former state representative and now Plymouth Township supervisor, noted that each detail of the project has involved discussion, careful review and approval from local authorities.

“We are monitoring every aspect,” he told the Free Press. “Saint John’s Resort is going to be one of the crown jewels of Michigan tourism — for weddings, golf, banquet facilities. I think it will be on par with the Grand Hotel and Oakland Hills golf course and other historic venues we already enjoy around the state.”

Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: 313-618-1034 or Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek